Sunday, March 23, 2014

What Matters - Reflections After Parent-Teacher Conferences

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I always look forward to the day of parent-teacher conferences. There is something special about sharing what I have come to know about a child's learning with their parent(s) or guardian(s). And with twenty-five years experience of these meetings, I know that talking to someone else who cares about that little person can be powerful -- in sometimes unexpected ways.

Thursday past was no different.

While the stories differed in the details one thing became abundantly clear again.  What we say to children matters.  What we say about children matters.

Trying to capture the strengths and the concerns about academic progress we have observed each term, in the short space allotted on report cards, is always a challenge for teachers.  We are expected to create a record, a snapshot of where the child is, at this point in their school year and share it in terms clear to both families and other colleagues. The words we choose so carefully leave out the many ways we provided opportunities to become engaged with the content and to practice expected skills. It doesn't account for the many ways we now assess learning, the myriad situations in which we directly and indirectly observed the student.

Needless to say, communicating to the parents about that over each term is essential. There should be no surprises when the brown envelope is opened! That being said, sometimes parents react differently when the words about their child's progress, or the concerns about it, are in black and white.

We have to keep in mind that a parent reacts first and foremost on behalf of their child. When a parent tells you that their child thought being asked to writing conferences meant they weren't good enough, then something needs changed. It matters not what actually takes place - that every student has participated in those individualized sessions with me, nor that I know what we do and say in conferences is carefully constructive, somehow that child's perception has been framed a certain way and I have to do something about it.

That parents want and expect the best for their child sometimes is demonstrated in what we would see as unrealistic or unachievable goals. "I want him to get 5s this term."  His teachers know his reading is not (yet) at grade level.  We know he resists writing tasks -work- as much as he can.  Words like "inattentiveness" and "struggling" were on his report cards this year. Encouraging him to get to the level of achievement demonstrated so far has been a regular challenge.

But when we find out from Mom that he really loves to be out in the woods, that he spends time ice-fishing and hanging out with his grandfather whenever he can and that he will watch shows on the Discovery Channel, don't we have a means by which we might now engage him in school-based learning, too? Might it  now be possible to support him in ways not yet addressed and help him attain higher scores than he possibly thought attainable?

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Finding out things about your student that has not been shared through the phone calls or emails can sometimes be hard to hear, as we know their potential impact on a student's success. Separation of parents, a death in the family, a parent leaving to go away for work are not uncommon topics at parent-teacher conferences. Some things need to be shared in person. Such was the case when one mother explained her son's recently changed attitude and effort was a result of him standing up to a classmate who had bullied him for the last three years! That was a shock! We have a co-teaching team in the classroom this year and support teachers as well; none of us picked up that there was anything of that magnitude going on between these two.

It was hard to think that we missed that. It was hard to think of him in class worrying and we missed that. It was even harder to consider what we might have said ( even as nicely put as one does) about his lack of focus on what we were saying and/or doing at the time. It was hard to think how we let him down.

As vigilant as we may think we are, we do not see everything that goes on in our classrooms, hallways and other spaces where students gather. Things happen. And as caring as we know we are with our students, we have to ensure all our students understand how available we really are, how supportive we can really be  ...that our words are not empty. What we say and do every day with every child matters. We cannot ever be complacent about the words we espouse about building a safe and caring school community.

Letting our students know that we care is a goal, part of the everyday experience at the school where I am proud to work. In each and every corner of the school, the staff and students greet each other warmly, ask about and share thoughts about the weather, the hockey game, the lost tooth, the lost pet. From the principal's high fives in the Drop-off zone to the caretaker helping to find a sneaker to the teacher sitting by a desk at recess to review something, I can see countless acts of caring everyday.

As I walk through the corridors each day, I hear many positives from our parent community about how things roll at our school! What we say and do matters.

When a parent tells you that she hears everyday about the way you touched her child on the shoulder, that you smiled at her, that you liked her story... it matters not so much what scores she got on "problem solving" or "uses writing strategies" as it does about how she feels coming to school everyday willing to try her best because she knows we care about her. We gave her that smile.

That matters.

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